Ingestible Pill Maps Patient’s Stomach With Spinning Laser

Researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital are finding new ways to look inside the body.

Imagine if during your next medical check-up, your doctor was able to create a detailed map of the inside of your body in mere minutes instead of only examining your external signs. Rather than relying on a diagnosis of complex symptoms, physicians would be able to spot problems simply by looking at and identifying them. Recently, researchers have been working on just such a device, which takes the form of a small ingestible pill that uses laser imaging to provide detailed scans of the inside of a patient’s body.

The laser imaging system was developed by researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and is comprised of an inch-long capsule containing optical frequency domain imaging (OFDI) technology. A rapidly rotating laser tip inside the device emits a near-infrared beam of light, and sensors record the light reflected back from the patient’s esophageal and stomach lining to produce an image. The capsule is attached to a string-like tether that connects to an imaging console, allowing a physician to control the system. After the capsule is swallowed by a patient, it is carried down the esophagus via normal contraction of the surrounding muscles, and when it reaches the entrance to the stomach, it can be pulled back up by the tether.

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At this point, the primary goal of the device is to provide a new way to screen patients for Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition usually caused by chronic exposure to stomach acid. Currently, a typical endoscopic examination to screen for the condition requires a patient to be sedated, and can take up to 90 minutes. Researchers tested the new system on 13 unsedated participants – six known to have Barrett’s esophagus and seven healthy volunteers.  The physicians operating the system were able to image the entire esophagus in less than a minute, and a procedure involving four passes – two down the esophagus and two up – could be completed in less than six minutes.

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By way of this simple procedure, patients can quickly and easily undergo a cancer screening procedure in the context of a normal visit to the doctor, rather than having to schedule a separate lengthy appointment. Not only does this make it easier for doctors to spot the condition, but patients will be more likely to undergo screening if it is quick and painless, and hopefully catch any pre-cancerous symptoms much sooner, increasing the effectiveness of treatment.

Advancements such as this device provide inexpensive and low-risk alternatives to expensive diagnostics, which in the long run provides great benefit for both doctors and patients.

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